Setting aside what one thinks of them as films, "The Fast and the Furious" franchise was thought to be unstoppable for so longincreasing in size, popularity and box-office returns with almost every entrythat it came as a crushing, grievous, untimely blow when 40-year-old actor Paul Walker was killed in a violent single-car auto accident in November 2013. With filming on "Furious Seven" only halfway complete, new series director James Wan (2013's "The Conjuring
") and returning writer Chris Morgan (who previously penned 2006's "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
," 2009's "Fast & Furious
," 2011's "Fast Five
," and 2013's "Furious 6
") had to go back to the drawing board and make tough decisions about how to complete the film without one of their leading stars. This entire business situation, following so closely after tragedy, must have been awful to comprehend and even more difficult to endure. Ultimately, Paul's brothers, Caleb and Cody, were used as stand-ins, incorporated with additional body doubles as well as state-of-the-art CGI that would use the late star's face and voice. Watching the finished picture, the seams barely show; with a climactic fight scene shot in darkness and choppily edited the only obvious instance of doubles being used, viewers unaware of the film's history would assume Walker survived to see the end of principal photography.
The quality of "Furious Seven" is insignificant in light of the very real loss of life surrounding it, but as far as swan songs go, this one sends Paul Walker out on a classy, poignant final note in what is easily, by far, the best entry in the series. Wan, taking over for director Justin Lin, delivers what he knows fans are craving, building newfound layers to the mainstay characters and their relationships while conceiving of a stream of wondrous, breathless, armrest-clenching showcases that make all the action of the previous films look like practice runs to the main event. Whereas "Fast Five
" and "Furious 6
" stumbled on occasion with a lot of wheel-spinning downtime and superficial interactions between its overextended ensemble, "Furious Seven" cuts to the chase (literally and figuratively) while bringing more attention to the people on the screen. One could say that this cast has been fun to watch together over the years, but have the hypocritical, self-involved, irresponsible criminals they've portrayed ever been worth caring about? Wan and Morgan find a way to make them likable again while the castguilty in the past of going through the motionslook newly energized and passionate about what they are doing. Everyone behind the camera and in front of it are giving their all here, and it shows.
Having been pardoned for helping out DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and allowed to return to the United States, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), best friend Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), and most of their gang have gone back to their old lives in Los Angeles. Dom's younger sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), has just learned she is pregnant with her and Brian's second child, but before she can announce the big news they are thrown back into jeopardy by Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the vengeance-seeking brother of a dangerous man from their past whom they put in a coma. Deckard is out to kill every last one of themhe has already claimed the life of Han (Sung Kang) in Tokyoand Dom, Brian, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges), and Dom's amnesiac soulmate Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are not about to let him get away with it. Were that not enough, Somalian terrorist Mose Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) is after a high-tech surveillance program called "God's Eye" that could prove cataclysmic in the wrong hands, and has kidnapped computer hacker Megan Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) to locate its whereabouts. With promises to help Dom & Co. defeat Deckard, shadow government agent Frank Petty (Kurt Russell) enlist them to rescue Ramsey and take down Jakande and his cohorts.
It took seven movies, but "Furious Seven" can be counted as the franchise's first unequivocal success, a go-for-broke extravaganza of gripping tension, unbelievably wild stuntwork, and a beating heart that doesn't feel prefabricated. Tossing logic and believability aside, director James Wan and scribe Chris Morgan envision action set-pieces so over-the-top and insane it is a safe bet nothing like them have ever been glimpsed on film before. One such sequence set in Eurasia's Caucasus Mountains finds our protagonists skydiving in cars, hijacking a transport vehicle on the winding roads below, and dangling precariously off rocky cliffs. It doesn't end there, either, building and building with astonishing grandeur and imagination, pure cinematic spectacle and suspense so effective it earns comparison to the T-rex attack in 1993's "Jurassic Park." The awesomeness continues with a trip to Abu Dhabi for a daring, dizzying scene taking place across multiple area high-rise buildings, and a finale back in Dom and Brian's old stomping ground that crowd-pleasingly unites all the characters and story threads for one final showdown.
When filming commenced, there was no way for anyone involved to know of the unexpected loss they would soon be facing. In every moment, though, the actors look to be putting their everything into it, emotionally available in a way that they have not been before. Whether this is a result of the new, exciting auteur at the helm of the ship, stronger overall material, or a cosmic symbiosis that gave the cast the drive to do their best work possible, it is readily apparent throughout. Vin Diesel (2013's "Riddick
") and an especially affecting Michelle Rodriguez (2013's "Machete Kills
") excel as more time is afforded to their characters' history together and the memory loss that has left Letty lost as she tries to figure out who she once was. Considering the brevity of her screen time, Jordana Brewster (2006's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
") takes the would-be thanklessness of her role as Mia (yes, she even has to utter for the umpteenth time, "Just promise me, after this, we're done") and injects it with passionate urgency and strength as she faces the thought of losing Brian. Brewster is removed almost entirely from the bulk of the narrative as Mia flees to the Dominican Republic to protect their toddler son, but makes it count every time she reappears. A late telephone conversation between herself and Walker is surprisingly touching.
As friendly sparring partners Roman and Tej, Tyrese Gibson (2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon
") and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges (2011's "New Year's Eve
") are again on hand predominately as comic relief. There is little meat to these two and they do not have much purpose other than to help out, but they are at least energetic in their disposability. Dwayne Johnson (2013's "Pain & Gain
") continues his reign as good-humored badass Hobbs, getting a chance to expand his one-note role to two. Kurt Russell (2007's "Grindhouse
") is a welcome first-timer to the series as new ally Mr. Nobody, showing his younger costars what swagger is all about, while Nathalie Emmanuel (HBO's "Game of Thrones") affably fits right in playing Ramsey, the most attractive computer hacker that has apparently ever breathed. As central heavy Deckard Shaw, Jason Statham (2014's "The Expendables 3
") snarls maniacally while looking ready for his next kill.
Finally, we come to Paul Walker, a performer who got little respect for his talent until after he was gone. Most of his roles typecast him as a blond-haired surfer type or, because of the "Fast and Furious" movies, an action star, but when he was given the chance to expand beyond these constraints, as with 2001's "Joy Ride
" and 2006's "Running Scared
," it was obvious that he had more to offer than what many critics and audiences (and Hollywood in general) gave him credit. In his last motion picture, playing the part for which he is destined to be most remembered, Walker is terrific, emanating an inner glow and earnestness signifying exactly who he was and what made him special as an actor.
As innately fun and thrilling as "Furious Seven" is, there is also a sense of emotional responsibility and gravity to the film that its predecessors lacked. With an opening trip to the desert-set "Race Wars" from the original "The Fast and the Furious
," Dom speaking just as the third act gets underway about "one last ride," and the way the characters are so satisfyingly wrapped up, the finished product feels like the culmination of where the franchise has been leading all along. Disregarding the somewhat disappointing comeuppance of Deckard, this oft-exhilarating installment could otherwise act as an impeccable series ender. The final scenes, bidding farewell to Walker while acting as simultaneous celebration and eulogy, are pitch-perfect. Surprise, surprise, "Furious Seven" has its share of clunky dialogue (at one point, Dom thanks Brian for "being a good father to my nephew, Jack," as if Brian would otherwise not know who Jack was without that signifier), but that is a small price to pay in the grander scheme of things. Wan knows his film is preposterous and he just doesn't care, exposing viewers to one hair-raising, awe-inspiring situation after the next while never losing sight of his story's humane center. The first truly noteworthy action pic of 2015 has arrived.